Mystery bag, winter squash couldn’t stymie cooks

The Whole Dish podcast: Mystery bag contained a few curveballs

A longtime fan of Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” maybe I also should bone up on the television series “Chopped.”

But when confronted recently with a “mystery bag” of ingredients, I like to think that I acquitted myself fairly well. The challenge: Prepare a dish from a bag of ingredients (donated by Ashland Food Co-op and selected by local author Edwin Battistella) using portable kitchen equipment loaned by ACCESS’s Cooking Skills Education program, for which I volunteer.

This all came off in the Hannon Library for the Ashland Literary Arts Festival, organized by local author and publisher Tod Davies. My cooking compatriot, Tod is a fellow advocate of freewheeling food preparation without relying on recipes.

Tod initially asked me to present a lecture and/or panel discussion about food writing for festival goers. Because she also hosts cooking demos for some of her bookstore readings, the idea of incorporating one into our talk started taking shape. And because Tod mentioned that most of her demos were too easy, we decided to up the ante with Ed’s help and a few suggestions from his students at Southern Oregon University.

To establish a few parameters, Tod and I requested some kind of protein, some kind of grain-based product, fresh produce and a spice picked at random from the Co-op’s bulk bins (just in case we needed a curve ball!). We suggested as optional ingredients: a dairy-based food and dried fruits or nuts from the bulk section. Ed had a $25 gift card at his disposal.

We wound up unpacking a shopping tote containing ground organic chicken, bulgur wheat, dry lentils, tamari-roasted almonds, a whole pineapple, clementines, carrots, shallots, garlic, dried licorice and marshmallow roots, prepopped, packaged popcorn and a whole sugar pumpkin.

Some kind of curry spice would have made the dish crystal clear. Even still, a stew of lentils, bulgur, chicken and the veggies seasoned with licorice root seemed obvious. Top that off, I suggested with a relish of pineapple, clementine zest and chopped almonds, garnished with the popcorn. If we’d only had a bit more time and an extra burner, I would have concocted a quick chutney by simmering the pineapple with vinegar included among our “pantry staples.”

“Cooking with what you’ve got” is the subtitle of Tod’s first food memoir. But even she seemed a bit befuddled by the motley array of ingredients. So she began with a familiar method: sautéing meat with aromatics while I put the lentils on to boil and started breaking down the pumpkin, no simple task even in a fully equipped kitchen.

After hacking the plump squash in half, I began casting around for an implement that would scrape out the seeds. Lacking a metal spoon, I gouged out the squash’s innards with the pointed end of my vegetable peeler, which also removed most of the hard rind with just a bit of assistance from a paring knife.

The peeled and cubed squash went into the pot with the lentils, where it imparted just the right amount of sweetness to offset the acidic meat mixture over which Tod labored on the other side of the table. And because I added the pumpkin early in the cooking process, before the bulgur, it essentially melted into the stew.

It’s hard to know how long a winter squash will take to soften, which depends on the variety and its moisture content. But if I wanted to refine this type of dish in my home kitchen, I would roast the cubed squash, which brings out its sweetness and produces the best texture.

Winter squash cubes, particularly butternut, are available in the produce sections of some grocery stores. But buying a whole squash is by far more economical.

To make cutting squash easier, pierce it 3 or 4 times with a sharp knife and microwave on high (100 percent) power for 1 to 2 minutes; allow to stand and cool for 3 minutes. Using a large, heavy knife, cut off the stem. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Peel using a vegetable peeler. Cut the flesh into cubes.

Bulgur is an ingredient that I’d prepare again. But I’ve really been enjoying Israeli couscous the past few months. This dish, with its citrus and nuts, has a flavor profile not unlike the stew that Tod and I produced. The recipe is courtesy of Tribune News Service.

Tirbune News Service photo

Israeli Couscous With Roasted Winter Squash

1/2 cup Israeli couscous

Nonstick spray, as needed

2 cups winter squash cubes

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/4 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed

1/2 small red onion, peeled and chopped

1/4 cup dried, sweetened cranberries

1 pear, peeled and cored

1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecan halves, toasted

Fresh spinach leaves or dark-green lettuce leaves

Cook the couscous, according to package directions, omitting oil. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with some of the nonstick spray.

Toss the squash cubes with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season with the salt and pepper. Spread squash in a single layer on prepared pan. Bake, uncovered, in preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until roasted and just fork tender.

In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice, honey, mustard and rosemary. Whisk in remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper; set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine cooked couscous and squash with the onion and cranberries.

Chop half of the pear and add it to couscous mixture. Reserve remaining pear for garnish.

Toss couscous mixture with orange juice mixture.

Line 4 individual plates with the fresh spinach or lettuce. Spoon couscous mixture on each. Sprinkle with the walnuts. Thinly slice remaining half of pear and use as a garnish.

Makes 4 servings (total yield 5 cups).

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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